- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005

PARADISE

By A. L. Kennedy

Knopf, $25, 304 pages

REVIEWED BY JENNIFER RESTAK

In A. L. Kennedy’s latest novel, “Paradise,” the protagonist, Hannah Luckcraft, suffers from a thirst for alcohol. Like this Scottish author’s earlier works “Looking for the Possible Dance” and “So I Am Glad,” this new novel consists mainly of an internal narrative, an associative stream of recollection and imagining. In “Paradise” this approach is used to its greatest effect, making the reader complicit in the fragmented workings of Hannah’s mind.

We meet Hannah Luckcraft in a hotel dining room at 8:42 in the morning. She clutches a glass and an unidentified room key, deducing her whereabouts on the basis of clues: a hooded sweatshirt, 50 pounds in crisp English notes “(so I went to a cash machine then),” a credit card in the name of M. H. Virginias.

Unlike most alcoholics, Hannah is not in denial of her habit. Indeed, it provides her with a reason to live. In it, she finds freedom, describing her blackouts with an almost impossible optimism, as escape from the tyranny of time. But she fears her dreams. “Your head waits until you’re unconscious, then moves in and gives you a kicking you can’t duck — revenge for the years of hangovers you’ve brought it.” Her interactions with others are seen mostly through the filter of drink, which lends a touch of humor to the macabre. For her, the drink distills things down to their bare elements; drunk, she has enough wit about her to know exactly how she feels about things.

Although at moments she sees with a brutal clarity, she takes little interest in the larger picture. In a world that is “impossibly wrong,” she chooses mostly to look the other way. Due to this protagonist’s limited ability for self-reflection, the images used to suggest her experience provide the greatest clue to her state of mind.

Waking confused in her sun drenched childhood bedroom, she watches a spider trapped in the splinter of sunlight in an overturned glass, scratching frantically, “fighting mechanically at the glass.” She describes the fear she feels bereft of drink: “The fear in the house … moves under my ribs, climbing and falling, climbing and falling, like a spider against glass.” Hannah is like a spider herself, seeking out dark places.

“Back in the black house again,” her physical decline is revealed in graphic terms. Regaining consciousness in a long hotel hallway, a ghoulish house of mirrors, she catches a glimpse of her face and sees “my open eye squinting out from a bloated mass of greenish white.”

With a reasoning perfected over time, Hannah justifies draining every bottle in her apartment before her brother arrives, telling herself that thereby she spares him the guilt of pouring them down the drain. He compares her to a C 57 mouse with a doctor’s severity perfected in the lab. “Give them the choice of alcohol or water and they’ll always pick the drink. They love to kill themselves.”

The writer Harold Brodkey once said there’s a spiritual grandeur to great drinkers. Hannah Luckcraft finds a superiority over those who don’t drink, describing alcohol’s power in spiritual terms. “I drink myself higher, it’s all I need do to ascend.” And, in the possibility of the next drink she finds “a chance of resurrection.”

Hannah’s struggle, especially with near-death blackouts, is intended to suggest the Stations of the Cross. There is more than a hint of inevitability to her actions, which often seem to take place before she’s willed them. She has a tendency to blame God for her penance rather than own up to her mistakes. She steps on a nail — Christ nailed to the cross? — but it is a credit to Ms. Kennedy’s subtlety that the metaphor is more hinted at than stated.

The clearest sign of the cycle in which the protagonist is stuck lies in the structure of the tale itself. The book opens and ends in an airport hotel, a sort of purgatorial middle ground. Hannah is in a perpetual state of wandering, to Budapest, Dublin, and London, which as a proud Scot, she dislikes. “I wish the grass more uneven, feel the lack of scrub and rocks.”

Midway through the novel, we discover she has already cycled through one round of binge and recovery. This cycle is fueled in part by her love for someone whose thirst is almost greater than her own. When Robert threatens to leave her, the powerful episode begins and ends with her slicing lemons. The structure again suggests how her future will lead her back once again to where she started. “You think you’re intact, not even a paper cut, but the lemon juice will always search out something, sneak in and bite.”

Her increasing confusion finds expression in a more diffuse and dreamlike narrative, with larger gaps in time. In a “scorch of white,” like the sunlight blazing against the trapped spider, she finds herself back in her room at the clinic, a place buzzing with nature and filled with the sound of birdcalls.

A period of sobriety unearths many self-doubts basic to those who suffer from her illness. But since the secretive mind of an alcoholic is almost by definition concealed from view, it’s unusual to see the fears of day described in such honest terms. “I crave mood alteration: this is my trouble, I will accept: my natural mood is of the has-to-be-altered type.” And so, with acuity, Ms. Kennedy brings the reader inside the consciousness of someone who believes they shine most brightly when they’re dim.

Jennifer Restak is a writer in New York City.

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